Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Technological aging

We are all familiar with biological aging. Roughly speaking, it is the loss of fitness that most animals undergo with time. At the present time, there is simply not much you can do against biological aging. You are just not going to win any gold medals in the Olympics at age 65.

However, not all “aging” in human beings in biological.

There is what I would call “chronological aging”: the trivial fact that, with each passing day, you have been alive one more day. While biological aging might be reversed one day, it is a logical certainty that no amount of technology, except maybe time travel, can reverse chronological aging. Interestingly enough, technology could affect (but not reverse) chronological aging: if you go for a trip at the speed of the light, your chronological aging will be slowed compared to the people you leave behind.

However, much of “aging” is actually social. For example, my children make fun of me since I cannot skateboard. That is true, I never learned to skateboard. However, I am quite convinced that I could learn. I might even like it. However, I am concerned about what people might think if I show up to a skate park with my skateboard.

More interesting to me is “technological aging”. It is the idea that with chronological age, people tend to fail to adopt new technologies up until the point where it becomes too hard for them to catch up.

It goes like this:

  1. You are up-to-date technologically in your teens and twenties.
  2. Some new technology is developed when you are in your thirties or beyond. Maybe its ebooks, ecommerce or Facebook.
  3. At first, this new technology is not very good or it is simply reasonable to consider it with suspicion. So you give it a pass. You choose not to adopt it. In any case, you are doing well with the technology you know.
  4. More new technologies come along, some of them build on the technology you did not adopt. It becomes increasingly tempting to give it a pass. Not only are you missing some of the foundations, but it is new and can be viewed with suspicion.
  5. Finally, after a few decades, you are disconnected technologically, incapable of keeping up.

Observe that both technological aging is somewhat independent from biological aging. That is, imagine a society where we can rejuvenate anyone. So you reach the biological age of 30, and you are stuck there. You never have grey hair. Your skin remains youthful. You would still be able to tell how old someone is just by which technologies they choose to use.

Technological aging is not unique. There is a related concept which I call “cultural aging”. For example, we tend to prefer the music that came out when we were in our teens. I believe that the same effects are at play. New music or new styles come along, but you don’t embrace them because you already have your favorite music. Over time, you become increasingly disconnected.

In any case, the great thing about technological aging is that, unless biological aging, I believe that it is largely reversible. You can adopt ebooks even if you are in your 60s. You can drop cable TV in favour of the Internet. You can stop defending the lecture as a mode of instruction and embrace YouTube and podcasts. However, it takes deliberate effort.